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Every piece of music, with the exception of the intentionally rhapsodic utterance, begins with some group of notes of distinct rhythmic and melodic interest, which is the germ–the generative force–of the whole, and which is comparable to the text of a sermon or the subject of a drama. This introductory group of notes is called, technically, a motive or moving force and may be defined as the simplest unit of imaginative life in terms of rhythm and sound, which instantly impresses itself upon our consciousness and, when heard several times, cannot be forgotten or confused with any other motive. A musical theme–a longer sweep of thought (to be explained later)–may consist of several motives of which the first is generally the most important.

Just here lies the difference between the Heaven-born themes of a truly creative composer and the bundle of notes put forth by lesser men. These living themes pierce our imaginations and sing in our memories, sometimes for years, whereas the inept and flabby tunes of certain so-called composers make no strong impression and are forgotten almost as soon as heard. Motives obviously differ from each other in regard to the intervals of the tones composing them, i.e., the up and down relationship in pitch, the duration of the tones and their grouping into metric schemes. But a real motive is always terse, concise, characteristic and pregnant with unrevealed meaning. The chief glory of such creative tone-poets as Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, and Franck is that their imaginations could give birth to musical offspring that live forever and are loved like life itself. The first step, then, in the progress of the appreciator of music is the recognition of the chief motive or motives of composition and the development of power to follow them in their organic growth.

This ability is particularly necessary in modern music: for frequently all four movements of a symphony or string-quartet are based upon a motive which keeps appearing–often in altered form and in relationships which imply a dramatic or suggestive meaning. A few of such motives are cited herewith, taken from works with which, as we proceed, we shall become familiar.

CÉSAR FRANCK: Symphony in D minor

BRAHMS: First Symphony in C minor

TCHAIKOWSKY: 5th Symphony

DVORÁK: Symphony From the New World

It is now necessary for the student to know something about the constructive principles by which large works of music are fashioned; not so much that he could compose these works himself, even if he had the inspiration, but to know enough, so that the reception of the music is not a haphazard activity but an intellectual achievement, second only to that of the original creator.

Every genuine work of art in whatever medium, stone, color, word or tone, must exhibit unity of general effect with a variety of detail. That is, the material must hold together, be coherent and convince the participant of the logical design of the artist; not fall apart as might a bad building, or be diffuse as a poorly written essay. And yet, with this coherence, there must always be stimulating and refreshing variety; for a too constant insistence on the main material produces intolerable monotony, such as the “damnable iteration” of a mediocre prose work or the harping away on one theme by the hack composer.

In no art more than music is this dual standard of greater importance, and in no art more difficult to attain. For the raw material of music, fleeting rhythms and waves of sound is in its very nature most incoherent. Here we are not dealing with the concrete, tangible and definite material which is available for all the other arts, but with something intangible and elusive. We know from the historical record of musical development, that, only after centuries of experimentation conducted by some of the best intellects in Europe was sufficient coherence gained so that there could be composed music which would compare with the simplest modern hymn-tune or part-song. And this was long after each of the other arts–architecture, sculpture, painting, and literature–had reached points of attainment which, in many respects, have never since been equaled.

Before carrying our inquiries further, something must be said about the two main lines of musical development which led up to music as we know it today. These tendencies are designated by the terms Homophonic and Polyphonic. By homophonic, from Greek words signifying a “single voice,” is meant music consisting of a single melodic line, as in the whole field of folk-songs (which originally were always unaccompanied) or in the unison chants of the Greeks and the Gregorian tones of the early church, in which there is one melody though many voices may unite in singing it.

Later we shall see what important principles for the growth of instrumental music were borrowed from the instinctive practice associated with the folk-song and folk-dance. But history makes clear that the fundamental principles of musical coherence were worked out in the field of music known as the Polyphonic. By this term, as the derivation implies, is meant music the fabric of which is made by the interweaving of several independent melodies. For many centuries the most reliable instrument was the human voice and the only art-music, i.e., music which was the result of conscious mental and artistic endeavor, was vocal music for groups of unaccompanied voices in the liturgy of the church. About the tenth century, musicians tried the crude experiment, called Organum, of making two groups of singers move in parallel fifths e.g.,

During the 13th and 14th centuries, a method was worked out by which the introductory tune was made to generate its own subsequent tissue. It was found that a body of singers could announce a melody of a certain type and that, after they had proceeded so far, a second set of singers could repeat the opening melodic phrase–and so likewise often a third and a fourth set–and that all the voices could be made to blend together in a fairly harmonious whole. A piece of music of this systematic structure is called a Round because the singers take up the melody in rotation and at regular rhythmic periods.

The earliest specimen of a Round is the famous one “Sumer is icumen in” circa 1225 (see Supplement of musical Examples No. 1), which shows to what a high point of perfection–considering those early days–musicians had brought their art. For, at any rate, by these systematic, imitative repetitions they had secured the first requisite of all music, coherence. This principle, once it was sanctioned by growing musical instinct, and approved by the convention, was developed into such well-known types of polyphonic music as the Canon, the Invention and the Fugue; terms which will be fully explained later on.

It is of more than passing interest to realize that these structural principles of music were worked out in the same locality–Northern France and the Netherlands, and by kindred intellects–as witnessed the growth of Gothic architecture; and there is a fundamental affinity between the interweavings of polyphonic or, as it is often called, contrapuntal music and the stone traceries in medieval cathedrals. During the 13th and 14th centuries northern France, with Paris as its centre, was the most cultivated part of Europe, and the Flemish cities of Cambrai, Tournai, Louvain and Antwerp will always be renowned in the history of art, as the birthplace of Gothic architecture, of modern painting and of polyphonic music.

A great deal of the impetus towards the systematic repetition of the voice parts must have been caused by practical necessity (thus justifying the old adage); for, before the days of printed music, or even of a well-established tradition–when everything had to be laboriously written out or transmitted orally–whole compositions could be rendered by the singers through the simple device of remembering the introductory theme and joining in from memory whenever their turn came. Compositions in fact were often so recorded. The following old English round (circa 1609) shows clearly how the voices entered in rotation.

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